Pruning the Vine for Greater Fruit
Today’s Gospel reading, illuminated by a fine sermon, got me to thinking about all the news these past weeks of parishes settling the Church’s lawsuits against them, walking away from their buildings and bank accounts, and starting afresh without either. Just in the first five months of this year, we have witnessed a massive transfer of wealth from the CANA parishes to the Diocese of Virginia—well over four million dollars’ worth of real estate and nearly three million in cash and securities. A similar transfer, though not on the same scale, has occurred in Savannah and in Connecticut, as well as in New York, Ohio, Los Angeles, San Diego, Kansas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and Colorado. Add to those cases the massive transfer of diocesan endowment funds and parish properties ordered by Judge James in Pittsburgh, and the total transfer of wealth into the Episcopal Church from its realigning parishes must add up to thirty million dollars, if not more.
Now consider that phenomenon in light of what Jesus tells his disciples in today’s Gospel reading:
15:1 “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. 15:2 He takes away every branch that does not bear fruit in me. He prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit. 15:3 You are clean already because of the word that I have spoken to you. 15:4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.
15:5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me – and I in him – bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing. 15:6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and are burned up. 15:7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want, and it will be done for you. 15:8 My Father is honored by this, that you bear much fruit and show that you are my disciples.
The litigation history traced in outline above shows that a great deal of pruning has been going on in Christ’s church. But those who have endured it may take heart from our Lord’s assurance that “He prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit.”
There are two criteria for the one doing the pruning: first, that the branch have borne fruit in the past, and second, that pruning it will cause it to bear even more fruit in the future. It seems to me, from what I am aware of the histories of the various parishes that have suffered such severe pruning, that nearly all of them are continuing to flourish, or have (with regard to the more recent ones) every expectation of doing so.
What is there to say, however, of the church which laid claim to all this wealth as its own? From 2001 and continuing through the present, the numbers for the Episcopal Church (USA) have shrunk by every measure on which statistics are collected. Its budget shrank by nearly a third from its peak of $152,000,000 just after the current Presiding Bishop began her term of office to the proposed $104,852,000 for the next three years, with further cuts planned beyond that. The sermon I heard today called attention to these words of Jesus, as well:
“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.”
As General Convention approaches, ECUSA and its several dioceses are all busily taking stock of themselves, and proposals for “restructuring” are a dime a dozen. What today’s sermon brought home to me, however, is that “the branch cannot bear fruit by itself.” I am not laying a blanket charge against all of ECUSA that it is trying to be fruitful all on its own, without remaining in Christ. When I remember, however, that General Convention could not even bring itself to affirm the uniqueness of Christ just three years ago, and when I hear the Presiding Bishop speaking of how the Church must first die before it can be saved, I have to wonder if the truth in Christ’s words to his disciples is not being borne out in front of our very eyes.
For those preparing to head off for Indianapolis, here are two more sentences to ponder from today’s reading, and to weigh carefully whether they might have any application to the questions there to be addressed:
“If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and are burned up. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want, and it will be done for you.”
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